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Three days ago, the Mariners were longshots. Being 3.5 back of first place with two months to go isn't terrible in and of itself, but it is when there are two other teams standing in your way as well, and when you consider that you haven't been able to beat the guys in first all year long. And so the M's faced something of a make-or-break series as they entered the weekend - beat Oakland and you close the gap while getting the monkey off your back, but lose two or three and you have to pretty much give up on the season. The playoff part of it, anyway. As difficult as it is to come back from a 3.5 game deficit, 4.5 (with three fewer head-to-head games remaining) is worse, and 6.5 is almost impossible. If the Mariners wanted to wake up on Monday with realistic hopes of playing in October, they had to win this series.

And so they got swept.

Now, maybe this is all about growing pains and gaining experience. The Mariners are a pretty young team that's unaccustomed to playing big games in August, so maybe they buckled under the pressure and couldn't recover until it was too late. Maybe they're just not very good. Maybe it's something completely different. I don't know - it's generally hard to find any kind of reasonable explanation for why a team drops 12 consecutive games to another and falls out of the race. All that matters is that, as far as the playoffs are concerned, this season is over. We'll still hold out hope and check up on our rivals every day, but the odds are so slim that it's better to just give up now and spare yourself from further disappointment.

With the Mariners staring another sub-.500 season in the face, people will come out of the woodwork to criticize Bavasi for unloading Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-soo Choo while hanging on to Gil Meche in an effort to push the team towards October. They're going to retrospectively justify their critiques by pointing to the team's record and saying that they're clearly not a playoff-caliber team, and that the front office was fooling itself by thinking otherwise.

And they're going to be wrong. The Mariners were not and are not a bad team, and they recognized the window of opportunity they had to seize first place in a lousy division. It didn't work out that way (in large part due to some irreparable damage done by a certain designated hitter and manager who shall both remain nameless), but it was worth trying, and they didn't lose anyone who was going to be a big part of the next good Mariner team in the process. It's a shame it had to go like this, but everyone knew all along that 75-80 wins was a distinct possibility, so you can't really complain too much. If anything, the team's doing almost exactly what many people expected of them before the year started, so the fact that they aren't underachieving should make you feel better than you did in seasons prior. The reasons why the Mariners won't make the playoffs were in place long before this series even began. In the big picture, that's what sucks, nevermind the sweep.

Ideally, the organization would use this as a jumping-off point to get a few young players a little experience. If he's not sent back to Tacoma, Adam Jones needs to be playing every day, and guys like Eric O'Flaherty, Francisco Cruceta, and Chris Snelling could stand to get a little playing time in Seattle. The same could go for other assorted AAA flotsam as well (Scott Atchison, Cha Baek, and Hunter Brown, just to name a few), although that's never going to happen, at least not until the second week of September when Tacoma's season ends and the ML roster expands. It won't go down exactly like we want it to, but as the 2006 season wraps up we're going to see guys getting shots to prove that they can help out next summer, and that's reason enough to keep watching.

The plan all along was to develop key young players and remain competitive in preparation for a pennant run in 2007. That's exactly what's happened, only with the added benefit of being able to watch some important games into the beginning of August. It's disappointing to know that the M's were a few simple fixes away from getting over the hump, but there's no need to get all worked up about today when you're focusing on tomorrow. This is still a team on the rise, and they're going to be a big player in the AL West for the rest of the decade. Don't lose sight of that tonight when you're losing sleep over getting swept by Oakland for the 43rd time in a row.

Thanks for the fun couple of months, Mariners. I can't wait for next April.

Biggest Contribution: Raul Ibanez, +9.1%
Biggest Suckfest: Gil Meche, -26.6%
Most Important At Bat: Sexson strikeout, -16.9%
Most Important Pitch: Thomas homer, -28.6%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -23.7%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -31.0%

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I'll get a couple of my thoughts on the game up in a different post in a little while.